The 15 Best Episodes of 99% Invisible

99% Invisible Podcast Episodes(Credit: 99% Invisible)

Listening to an episode of 99% Invisible is always a little magical. With host Roman Mars’s warm voice giving the show its enchanting effect, the podcast offers deep dives into design subjects like architecture and urban planning as well as more unusual topics that illustrate how design pervades every aspect of modern life. It’s narrative, journalistic podcasting like the sort you’ve certainly heard on other programs, but is always delivered with substantial takeaways that you’re bound to think about weeks and even years later. 99% Invisible is about design, as well as history. But more than that, it’s about how Mars and his wonderful team of producers see the world and interpret beauty amidst chaos.

It’s been almost 10 years since 99PI first hit the airwaves, and the show has come a long way from its roots as a one-man podcast lovingly crafted in Mars’s bedroom. The sound has gotten a little lusher, the episodes have gotten a little longer, and there’s even a forthcoming book out this fall. The show’s rise in popularity has been accompanied by a wonderful evolution in style, and I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed every period of 99% Invisible’s history, from the baby Roman minisodes to its multi-part spinoff series like producer Avery Trufelman’s Articles of Interest. It is impossible to say the following 15 episodes are unequivocally the best the team has produced, but this list certainly provides a sample of the high-quality fare on offer from beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Episode 265: The Pool and the Stream

Skateboarding has more than its fair share of critics. This unique fusion of athleticism, gall and urban exploration is regarded by many as a dubious activity for troublemakers or slackers. Less is said about skateboarding’s symbiotic relationship with an incredibly influential piece of landscape architecture: the swimming pool. “The Pool and the Stream” presents these odd bedfellows without sanitizing skating or over-intellectualizing its place in the history of design.

Episode 324: Billboard Boys: The Greatest Radio Contest of All Time

Not only does “Billboard Boys” spool out the zany details of an almost impossible-to-believe competition, it also subtly captures the tone of early-Reagan era American society. The central event here is a contest, which takes place amid the economic downturn of the 1980s in working-class America, requiring people to live on a billboard for a chance to win a house. The episode capitalizes on the stranger-than-fiction angle 99PI handles so well.

Episode 114: Ten Thousand Years

How can you communicate the dangers of a radioactive site to an audience so far in the future when any currently used language may, by then, be long forgotten? This episode gives some insight into a project that did exactly that, and the result is a mix of history, futurism, anthropology, design, culture, and philosophy. It’s a great thought experiment to conduct with a group of nerdy friends, and incredible to consider that a group of humans were earnestly tasked with completing such a daunting project.

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Episode 86: Reversal of Fortune

With the on-demand nature of podcasts, so-called “driveway moments” are probably on the decline. But though a show can be paused and resumed at will, some stories still have the power to stop us in our tracks. This tale of innovation in the Windy City kept me listening with focuses attention well after I crawled into bed. People are amazing.

Episode 185: Atmospherians

The mechanics of Hollywood magic occasionally make an appearance on 99% Invisible, and “Atmospherians” focuses on the engine that drives the industry: people. Specifically, this episode tells listeners about the agency that finds exactly the right person to cast in a film. It’s fun to picture who would play me and my friends in a movie about my life, and a little unnerving to know that a carefully constructed database may very well contain perfect doppelgangers of myself and nearly anyone else.

Episode 323: The House that Came in the Mail

Long before it was a failing business, Sears, Roebuck and their catalog was a proto-Amazon or IKEA, shipping a vast array of household items across America. Not only that, Sears actually sold fully equipped, self-assembled houses and shipped them off to newly minted homeowners all over the US. While some of these unique buildings have stood for over a century and retained the purpose for which they were built, many of the giant regional Sears buildings have since been repurposed as their mail-order business waned.

Episode 330: Raccoon Resistance

Trash can design may not seem like an alluring subject to cover, especially in audio, but throw in a furry nemesis and the plot thickens. This episode is about trash cans and the battle waged between raccoons and the city of Toronto over control of those cans. When the intellect of man is pitted against that of raccoons, the result is a tale of ingenuity, strife and cuteness.

Episode 268: El Gordo

The very concept of the lottery might merit a 99% Invisible episode all on its own, but this episode delivers a spectacular story about one of the oldest lotteries in the world. Spain’s collective participation in this nationwide event makes for an excellent backdrop to a narrative of love, loss and change in the midst of fortune.

Episode 244: The Revolutionary Post

The concept of the postal system is both romantic and technical — there’s at once the interpersonal connection it fosters and the vast infrastructure necessary to pull it all off. Of course, this system had to sprout from somewhere, and on this episode we’re treated to a look inside the genesis of a service we’ve all come to rely on.

Episode 226: On Average

Americans frequently take for granted the immense range and variety of the consumer goods on offer to us. Even when we do think about the bounty of our options, such ponderings focus on technological gadgets or the rise of a specific consumer good. “On Average” focuses on something so basic you might otherwise fail to notice it at all: sizes. This episode is a meditation on the power and danger of a one-size-fits-all culture.

Episode 116: Breaking the Bank

This episode on bank heists focuses on three distinct topics: elaborate speculative heist design, brilliant movie heist-plotting, and battle-tested heist methodology. We don’t get as deep into one specific design element, but the episode has a whimsical air born from its punchy brevity. These chapters are like highly produced versions of the mini-stories that 99 PI delivers at the end of each calendar year, fleshed out with just enough detail to keep a quick pace humming throughout.

Episode 129: Thomassons

The pro baseball player Gary Thomasson spent much of his career playing for the San Francisco Giants. In 1981, he moved to Japan and began an infamous batting streak. He was dubbed “the human fan” (because of all that air he was moving around), and his bad luck on the field eventually brought him an even less complimentary nickname. Don’t worry, this episode is much more charming and less meanspirited than it might sound.

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Episode 262: In the Same Ballpark

Baseball plays on nostalgia more than any other sport, so it makes sense that the grounds where games take place would follow a similar logic. As this episode shows, ballparks are the perfect manifestation of a uniquely human preoccupation: working extremely hard to square one’s present reality with a perceived ideal of the past.

Episode 311: The Barney Design

If there’s no such thing as bad press, designer Tom O’Grady is an irrefutable genius. He injected a splashy aesthetic into the world of previously drab basketball uniforms in the 1990s, and his polarizing designs caused ripple effects that can still be seen nearly 30 years later. This episode is a great meditation on the intersection of business optimization and fun that defines pro sports and the fans who love them.

Episode 361: Built on Sand

From the boundless horizons of the Sahara to the remote vastness of a deserted island, images of sand evoke a sense of infinity. In reality, this granular substance is a non-renewable resource on the order of oil. Author Vince Beiser takes Roman on a journey through the ubiquitous use of sand in construction and the perils of having an increasingly low supply. This episode also includes a nod to the environmental impacts of the material’s continued use, serving as a reminder that the history of the built world is nevertheless susceptible to changes humans impose in the present.

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Aaron Yost has been listening to podcasts since the dawn of the iPod, and writing about them since 2016. You can read his weekly newsletter/blog at podpiperreview.blogspot.com